Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 5, 2013

Bone marrow stem cell donation saves distant life

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — SUTTONS BAY – Craig Foerster was a “little nervous” when he drove to a Traverse City hotel last fall to meet the woman whose life he saved.

Pam Whitmore understood.

“How do you say ‘thank you’ to somebody who has saved your life?” Whitmore said. “It equates to somebody pulling you out of a burning accident.”

So Whitmore of Buckingham, Iowa, simply gave the stranger a big hug and told him she had a lot of questions.

“He said, ‘Ask away. I have a lot of answers,’” she said.

The story of how Foerster, 47, of Suttons Bay donated life-saving bone marrow to Whitmore, 69, began 15 years ago, when Foerster lived in Grand Blanc. He had read about a bone marrow donor and then happened upon a bone marrow donation booth in the mall.

“They took a cheek swab and that was it, a little Q-tip inside my cheek for a DNA sample,” he said.

In September 2011, Foerster learned his bone marrow hit a match. He agreed to the procedure, knowing nothing about Whitmore's desperate struggle to live.

Whitmore was diagnosed with pre-leukemia in 2006. By May 2011, the disease progressed to acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer in which abnormal cells grow inside the marrow and supplant healthy blood cells.

Strong doses of chemotherapy were used to kill the bone marrow, but profoundly weakened Whitmore, who lost weight, hair and even fingernails. Doctors pegged chances of finding a donor at 13 percent chance. She was given a 30 percent chance of survival if they did.

On Sept. 14, 2011, Foerster drove to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit for what’s called a peripheral blood stem cell donation. He laid motionless, his arms propped on two different pillows, a needle in each one.

Blood left one arm and was separated for blood-forming cells. The remaining blood returned to the other arm.

“After three hours, my arms were JELL-O, I couldn’t move them,” he said.

The bone marrow stem cells were flown overnight to Iowa for Whitmore’s transplant the next day.

After the donation, Whitmore's strength and immune system slowly returned, and she often thought of her donor.

The National Bone Marrow Registry allows donor contact if both sides are amenable at the one-year anniversary. Whitmore wrote Foerster a long email and he answered 10 days later. In early November, Whitmore and her husband drove to Leelanau County to meet him.

The two talked for hours. Foerster told her the procedure took time, but didn’t hurt. He had donated blood all his life, so this was just a next step.

The next day, Foerster took her to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

“I was like a little girl. Giddy. Being with someone who saved my life. Seeing the beautiful leaves and a deer," she said. "And he was so proud to show me his part of the world.”

Foerster, who works at 7 Monks Taproom in Traverse City, hopes others are inspired to donate blood, platelets and marrow.

“I don't want this to be about me," he said.

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